The Handmaid’s Tale, revisited

Last weekend I discovered that The Handmaid’s Tale, which I first read as a teenager, is available on my favorite reading app. I couldn’t pass up the chance to take it for another spin, especially considering the disastrous times we’re living in when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Frankly, the society described in the Tale probably sounds like paradise if you’re a right-wing, anti-choice extremist like many of the people who stood on stage last Wednesday and said they’d like to be president.

But I’ll rant about that later. First, a little bit about the Tale:

Gilead, a Bible-based theocracy that has superseded the United States, is the setting for The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a society that’s been built on an extreme version of the GOP’s current pro-forced birth platform, and the cult of the fetus runs deep.

Abortion is, of course, banned, as are contraceptives. It’s common practice to have funerals for miscarried fetuses, no matter their gestational age, and technology that could detect fetal abnormalities is outlawed. Doctors who used to perform abortions in the old society are ferreted out, tortured and publicly executed. You’ll also be tortured and executed if you’re a “gender traitor” — i.e., gay.

Under Gilead’s strict religious law a man is the head of the household. If he’s rich and powerful enough he’s entitled to a Wife, female servants and a Handmaid (poor men are only allowed to own one woman). In the Tale, the narrator is a Handmaid named Offred. That isn’t really her name, though — it’s a simple patronym denoting that she belongs to the head of her household, a high-ranking man named Fred. Her original name was erased when she entered into service as a Handmaid.

The Handmaid’s role is modeled after the Old Testament story of Rachel and Bilhah: Rachel was infertile, so she gave her handmaid, Bilhah, to her husband, Jacob, as a concubine. Rachel then raised Bilhah’s children as her own. The Handmaids face the same fate: They are forced to bear children for a succession of high-ranking men, known as Commanders, but a Handmaid’s child is taken from her and raised by the Commander’s Wife.

Any Handmaid who becomes pregnant is worshiped, and giving birth to even a single, healthy child can lead to a cushy-enough life for her (though the privilege of raising her own child is never on the table). Unfortunately many of the Commanders are infertile. Fertility rates have dropped dramatically due to pollution, nuclear contamination, etc., (not to mention many Commanders are quite old) though legally it is only the woman who is barren and at fault for her inability to conceive. The concept of male infertility has been erased from society.

If a woman of childbearing age refuses this duty or fails to produce a child, she’s sent to an environmental disaster area known as the Colonies. The Colonies are already filled with such “Unwomen,” the old society’s leftovers who refused to assimilate (political dissidents, lesbians and, interestingly, nuns, because they refused to renounce their chastity vows). The narrator’s mother, an outspoken second-wave feminist, is banished to the Colonies during the initial Gileadean takeover. Another option for any woman who chafes at the idea of reproductive slavery is sex slavery — getting sterilized and entering into a brothel, institutions which are still allowed because, well, men have needs. Men’s supposed uncontrollable lustful needs are also why Handmaids are required to be covered from head to toe, even while copulating (because sex with a Handmaid is only for making babies, not for fun).

In Gilead rich, powerful men have total control, but women eke out degrees of “freedom” for themselves. Many Handmaids, desperate to have a child and avoid being banished to the Colonies, have affairs with their Commander’s bodyguards or find some other man to impregnate them. Some of these affairs — like the one that Offred engages in — are in part driven by real caring and lust. Women who still have their youth and beauty have other options. Offred’s lesbian friend Moira is given the choice between going to the Colonies or a brothel. She chooses the latter, which she describes, halfheartedly, as a “butch paradise.” Tiny, tiny snatches of “freedom,” the kind a patriarchal society would design as means to its own end.

That’s Gilead, in a nutshell. Now, back to the current reality.

Things are not that bad in America. I get that — I’m not an extremist. I have a pretty firm grasp on reality, and the reality is that, currently, I can get contraceptives at no cost thanks to the Affordable Care Act. If those contraceptives fail, I can still get an abortion. Because I live in Massachusetts I won’t have to jump through too many hoops (no waiting periods, no transvaginal ultrasounds) and odds are there’s a clinic pretty close.

And sure, it’s a bit extreme for me to compare the demented ravings of the insane clown posse (no disrespect to ICP!) that is this year’s crop of GOP presidential nominees to the fictional theocracy of Gilead. But I don’t think it’s totally outrageous, considering the kinds of policies they say they’d like to implement:

Mike Huckabee (whose only chance of being president is contingent on our country’s full decline into Gilead-style theocracy) said he’d use the FBI to spy on abortion clinics and that he’d use federal troops to shut them down. Scott Walker (who, unfortunately, is in a position to ruin women’s lives) recently signed a 20-week abortion ban that has no exception for rape and that allows potential fathers to sue doctors who perform abortions after 20 weeks. Oh, and Walker actually objected to that ban’s protections for the mother’s life, hinting during the first GOP debate that he would rather see a woman die than get a medically-necessary abortion. And during last week’s even worse GOP debate, Carly Fiorina bent over backward — and lied — to show that even though she’s a woman, she has just as little respect for her own bodily autonomy as her male colleagues.

Republican legislators are doing even more to take reproductive control out of a woman’s hands. Colorado Republicans recently declined to fund a wildly successful program that provided teenagers and low-income women who wanted them with free IUDs, lowering the teen birth rate by 40 percent. And 241 U.S. Representatives (mostly Republicans, but also two Democrats eager to prove they can hate women too!) just voted to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that, if it had any chance of being signed into law, would undoubtedly lead to a lot more unplanned pregnancies and forced births.

Gilead is an anti-choice extremist’s paradise, if you’re the kind of man (or woman!) who thinks that we should send in troops to close Planned Parenthood, that women should be denied life-saving abortion care, or that they should be forced to carry their rapist’s baby. And if those extremists are able to get the things on their wish list — making an abortion so hard to obtain that it’s de facto impossible, allowing men to legally interfere with their partner’s ability to access an abortion, or taking money from real reproductive health centers and giving it to crisis pregnancy centers — we’re at least a couple steps closer to making Gilead a reality. In many states, (like in my home state of Indiana) these battles have already been lost. But we can still win the war.